The case for a National Rehearsal Orchestra for New Music
Judging by my own experience of approaching professional orchestras with a view to being able to offer a new score for consideration, I believe that there is a need for a full-sized professional symphony orchestra dedicated entirely to playing contemporary music. The advantages of having such an institution would be manifold:
it would provide opportunities for contemporary composers to hear their music played at a high level, even if just in rehearsal
it would take away the uncomfortable need of other professional orchestras to risk box office receipts by performing new, unknown and unpopular music
it would concentrate the relatively small number of people (nonetheless a sizeable minority) who are interested in listening to new music into one place, thus maximising audience numbers for such music
it would enable some composers to become better known, creating a demand to hear the music played by the established professional orchestras
by playing through to a high standard many other scores, it would enable a great deal more composers than at present to hear their music, and to go away with a recording
it would provide our country with a far better reflection of the development of contemporary music culture than happens now
it would give an opportunity for professional players who become fed up with the endless repeats of 'safe' repertoire 'classics' to reinvigorate their desire to play at the highest level
and it would encourage many more excellent composers to write for orchestra, rather than give up because of the present inaccessibility to the closed shop of the modern professional orchestra
A National Rehearsal Orchestra for New Music would, like any other professional orchestra, require some state subsidy. And, like any other professional orchestra, it would be required to make most of its income through box office receipts and commercial recordings. In addition, agreements would be made with the composers of all the music played that in the event of any scores or individual composers becoming famous and established in the national and international repertoire, a percentage of the income generated for the individual would be given to the National Rehearsal Orchestra for New Music.
The National Rehearsal Orchestra for New Music should be constituted like any other professional body, with a principal conductor and a core of experienced professional players, as well as the usual administrative staff required to run it all. In addition there would need to be several assessors whose sole task would be to examine submitted scores, not to judge their aesthetic qualities, but rather to be able to select only those scores that were competent and practical. I believe that there should also be encouragement for new performing artists, and new conductors. It should become the natural home of musical opportunity, an institution genuinely interested in new music as well as any suitably skilled players or directors interested in promoting contemporary composition.
The experiences I have had trying to have my scores looked at have been very frustrating. Most of the orchestras I have approached do not have any mechanisms for contemporary composers like me to make proper contact. Very few seem to have any staff dedicated to liaising with composers, and this is in spite of the fact that there appear to be considerably more administrative staff than the professional players they are supposed to be supporting. It is little wonder that there is huge antipathy towards contemporary new music, because running costs are huge (and arts grants are usually the only way orchestras can survive these days) and new music is unpopular and keeps audiences away. Such orchestras have to design programs based on popularity in order to attract the punters. Quite often the token gesture towards new music is based on having a residency for or association with just one composer, or maybe a link with one of the national music colleges. Sometimes there are 'invitations' to new composers to submit scores for a day's workshop of a chosen few. In reality these are hugely oversubscribed, and, because very few scores are chosen, enormously disappointing to most. Besides, there are strict limitations as to the type of score required: a specific instrumentation and a set length limit. These are very closed shop affairs, and in no way encourage composers in general. It might tick Arts Council boxes but is not at all sympathetic to the culture of contemporary music.
The depressing truth of the contemporary music world is that most of it never gets heard. Instead there is a relatively small number of popular contemporary composers – by and large writing in a fairly easy and popularist style – (often described by commentators as 'the greatest living composers'). Thus does the "catch-22" circle continue to go round and round: only by being performed over and over do any contemporary composers become well-known, but until they are well known no professional orchestra will be prepared to play their music. This is terribly disappointing and dispiriting, and creates an unrepresentative idea of what our contemporary music culture actually is. If media success is all that determines what music is performed then we are doing a terrible disservice to the composing talent of our country. For this reason, I firmly believe that we desperately need a National Rehearsal Orchestra for New Music.